Silver Linings Playbook is a story about love and mental illness.
Sitting somewhere between a romantic comedy and psychological drama, David O. Russell’s film follows the story of Pat Solitano Jr (Bradley Cooper), who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder after he discovers a co-worker in the shower with his wife and nearly beats him to death.
After eight months in a psychiatric facility, Pat moves back in with his parents. Here, the strains mental illness can put on a family come to the fore.
Pat’s relationship with his father (Robert De Niro) is particularly tense. Also battling with mental illness, Pat senior’s OCD mainly involves rituals to ensure the Philadelphia Eagles – the American football team he supports – win their games.
Meanwhile, Pat bonds with old school friend Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Following the death of her husband, she is also suffering from her own mental problems but, unlike Pat, we never get a full diagnosis of her condition. We do know she has suffered from depression but perhaps, like many, she is unsure what she suffers from herself.
The two unite over the various medications they’ve taken and their side-effects. Pat’s reluctance to take his medication seems to rest on a combination of the ‘hazy’ effect the drugs have on him and his determination to get well ‘by himself’.
The manifestations of Pat’s bipolar are true to many of the symptoms commonly experienced by sufferers. He experiences several “manic phases” which include boundless amount of energy, racing thoughts and speech, the inability to sleep, aggressive outbursts, and delusional thinking.
Although after such episodes he is somewhat regretful of his behaviour, an inability to grasp the full extent of his actions is typical of his condition.
His delusional optimism – the search for a “silver lining” – centres on getting his wife, Nikki, back and he sees no reason why he can’t, despite her placing a restraining order against him.
In his desperation to contact Nikki, Pat and Tiffany strike a deal: in return for passing a letter on to his wife, Tiffany convinces Pat to be her partner in a dance competition.
On more than one occasion, Pat’s manic episodes amount to chaotic scenes. Filmed with an erratic style, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi keeps pace with Pat’s racing mind. In once scene, his intense despair over Ernst Hemingway’s choice of ending in A Farwell to Arms leads him to smash the book through a window and wake his parents to rant about Hemingway’s pessimism.
But, whilst he experiences several manic states, he doesn’t seem to experience any depressive “lows” bipolar sufferers commonly experience, along with the manic “highs”. He could be suffering from Bipolar I which predominantly involves manic episodes, although most experience depressive phases as well.
The film also explores the misconceptions and stigma surrounding mental illness. Acquaintances deridingly ask Pat how he enjoyed his time in the “loony bin”, Pat and Tiffany argue over who is ‘craziest’, and Pat is often comically dressed in a bin bag.
But the film does not belittle or mock him – it takes a firm stance against the judgemental attitudes still attached to mental illness. Throughout, the treatment of the two main characters is empathetic and respectful. Pat and Tiffany are not “loony” – they are people suffering from an illness who need help.
Yet the film’s portrayal of mental illness is by no means flawless. The characters’ ability to quickly overcome their problems is far from realistic. Pat reluctantly begins his medication and is undergoing therapy sessions. But rather than portraying these methods as effective means of dealing with mental illness, they are sidelined. His sessions with Dr. Patel seem to be there simply for comic value.
In the end, personal endeavour rather than medical treatment lead to his and Tiffany’s miraculous recoveries. Through the dance sessions and by falling in love, they seem to overcome their conditions.
Although relationships and activities such as dancing, reading and other activities can certainly help, they are not cures for mental illness. And so, although Silver Linings provides an endearing and, in many ways, realistic portrayal of bipolar disorder, its romantic-comedy genre seems to have pushed it towards a “love conquers all” conclusion which is far less representative of real life battles with mental illness.
To read more of our reviews on the portrayal of mental illness in television programmes, films and plays, click here.